PSYCHOTHERAPY USING AVATARS
by John Suler, Ph.D.
There was something different about Kirk when he came into the room. He was in his natural persona, but something had changed about his real face -- it looked a bit brighter than I was accustomed to, or maybe the contrast was lighter, or the image sharper. Somehow it felt...happier.
"Hi Doc," he said, hovering just slightly above the carpet. Usually, his feet disappeared below the floor somewhere at the ankle. Another interesting difference. He looked more flexible and agile with feet. "I have to take you to a dream I had last night. You mind if I change the room?"
"Sure, go ahead, " I replied as I tapped the keyboard sequence that unlocked the room graphics. I was a bit surprised by his request. It had been several weeks since we used imaginary scenarios and avatars. We had gone through a phase of working extensively with a variety of them. We had reenacted some childhood memories, especially his tenth birthday when his father failed to show for the big party, and at the supper table when his parents first told him about their plans to divorce. Playing his hero Tom Hanks helped him master those scenes -- and his fantasy Aunt Edna, in all her wisdom and zest for life, helped his parents be better parents.
As his supervisor at work, I ignored or casually rejected his attempts to do well, and as the supervisor he did the same to me. Eventually "the boss" persona became more compassionate, while "the abused underling" persona grew more assertive. He came to therapy as his father and mother, his big brother, as the heroes and villains in his favorite books and movies. We talked about his excursions into various cybercommunities using some of these personae. We even recreated his first date with his wife, with him experimenting as all the male figures he admired and despised, and his software wife-to-be reshaped into all the women he ever thought he desired, only to discover that his real marriage was not far from what he wanted it to be.
As productive as all that avatar work had been, there came a point when we felt we had reached the end of its usefulness. It even came to feel a bit like an escape. We spent more time just chatting. Between sessions, he sent me e-mail that captured his struggles to make sense out of all that had happened in therapy. Often we talked about his scenarios and avatars -- especially how he was applying what he had learned to his in-person life. But he didn't seem interested going back to that virtual work. So his request today to immerse us into his dream caught me a bit off guard.
"OK, here it is," Kirk said as the scene around us changed. We were in a room with a black and white checkered floor and gray walls with what looked like a mural of a city skyline, perhaps London. A locomotive was crashing through one of the two floor-to-ceiling windows. Sprawled across the floor were a red sofa and chair.
"What do you think?" Kirk asked.
A few months ago, I might have been concerned about the general tone of this scene, not unlike other dream images we had explored together. But instead, I found myself smiling. "What do YOU think?" I replied, reflectively, in the way therapists do when they suspect clients have an answer to their own questions.
Kirk paused only for a brief moment. "The locomotive is my depression crashing in on my rather sterile, matter-of-fact world. The chairs are my anger.... But you know what, Doc? This is the way things USED to be. Up here, this is where I see myself now. Not quite fully formed, still rough around the edges, but beginning to shine."
I glanced up at the abstractly drawn sun that hung in the middle of one of the gray walls. It looked like it was transcending the scene of disaster. I smiled again. That sun is what made this scene so different from all the others.
"Wonderful!" I said. "You're rising above all this.... I'm curious about me down here. Looks like that train is coming right at me, but I'm almost half out of the scene. And that face looks familiar. Who am I?"
"You're Picard, with glasses and a white shirt and tie!" Kirk laughed. "You've been like a captain during this voyage. There were times when I thought our journey -- my depression, my anger -- might destroy you. But not any more. Maybe now it's time for me to be captain of my own voyage. Maybe it's time for you to retire from these scenes, and for me to move on in my life."
"I think you may be right!" I said and laughed along with him.
Is this a scene from a science fiction story? A futuristic vision of psychotherapy using the technology of Star Trek holodecks? A hundred years down the road, this scene very well may take place in a multisensory, virtual environment generated by advanced computer systems. But what you just read COULD be taking place right now in cyberspace -- as illustrated in that graphic depiction of Kirk's dream using The Palace chat software (created by Jim Bumgardner and currently developed by Electric Communities).
Although it's not nearly as life-like or "immersive" as a holodeck, such multimedia chat software points to the future opportunity for therapists and clients to interact in a virtual space where their visual surroundings can be changed at will -- where they can shape-shift their appearances, thereby creating alternative and imaginary personae.
In cyberspace, the term "avatar" is used to describe one's personal manifestation in a virtual world. It may be the visual image you create for yourself, as well as the psychological character or persona you present to others. The term comes from the Hindu religion in which it refers to the various forms that gods chose to manifest themselves in the human realm. Using computer-generated virtual environments, "avatar psychotherapy" could be the exploration of the client's healthy and problematic identities by exploring the manifestation of those identities within imaginary scenarios.
The basic assumption of a psychotherapy using avatars is that all of the personae created in the virtual scenario are the various manifestations of the person's psyche. In fact, this assumption is a crucial one in many other forms of contemporary psychotherapy. Avatars would help concretize the complex constellations of memories, fears, wishes, idealizations, and expectations that comprise the person's sense of self. Those avatars give people the opportunity to amplify, explore, modify, and develop those sectors of self. However, giving life to those avatars is not the ultimate goal of the therapy. Immersion in the virtual field could become a game with no conclusion, a distraction from or even an active avoidance of the final goal that is assimilation of the personae into a unified, cohesive self where the various facets of self are joined together seamlessly. The ultimate goal is carrying the newly integrated self forward from the virtual world into the in-person world. As the Hindu term "avatar" suggests, manifesting and realizing the various forms of one's self may be a god-like expression of the universal Self.
John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.
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